“You’ll breathe easier just knowing that the worst is all behind you,” sings Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle toward the end of the trio’s 17th album, All Eternals Deck. A curiously hopeful message coming from the troubled songwriter who famously yelped, “I hope you die/I hope we both die,” on 2003’s “No Children.”
The harrowing character sketches and wry declarations of self-loathing that populated the Mountain Goats’ previous releases are in short supply here. Instead, Darnielle spends much of All Eternals Deck offering comfort and lessons gleaned from his heavily documented years as a heroin addict and victim of domestic abuse. We also hear the singer venturing beyond his signature, anxious warble: He adopts a cracking falsetto on “Sourdoire Valley Song,” a confident patter on “Prowl Great Cain,” a feverish howl on “Estate Sale Sign,” and a defeated coo on “Outer Scorpion Squadron.”
Miles removed from the four-track intimacy that characterized the group’s early output, All Eternals Deck contains some of the Mountain Goats’ most expansive, theatrical arrangements to date, rife with swelling strings, subtle organ, driving piano, and, on the curveball “High Hawk Season,” vocal accompaniment courtesy of harmony group the North Mountain Singers. But for all the album’s new shades, it’s telling that its finest track happens to be the most familiar sounding, the jaunty “For Charles Bronson.” One of three songs on the album titled after a former silver-screen icon, it recalls the macabre folk-pop of the band’s more recent efforts, but with one important difference: While the Darinelle of albums past might have written the song as a pitch-black allegory or a lurid character sketch, here he simply offers well meaning advice with convincing matter-of-factness: “Keep the heart of a champion/Never let them see you’re weak.”
“I used to assume no one would care,” Darinelle recently told Spin magazine, “but I do think now I’ve written songs that are useful to people having dark hours.” This self-assessment has never been more accurate: All Eternals Deck is comfort food from an unlikely kitchen.